Cantonese Merchant Networks
Cantonese commercial networks grew alongside the expansion of global capitalist circuits in Peru. The establishment of the short-lived Chungwha Navigation Co. revealed that Cantonese commercial networks had grown to the point that a group of Cantonese merchant elites commanded sufficient capital and connections to undertake such a large joint venture. It signals the crystallization of a Cantonese commercial bourgeoisie within the Peruvian Chinese community. The album, the bulk of which presents a series of brief exposés on the individual commercial firms and merchants grouped together by location, offers insights into the formation of this Cantonese Peruvian elite merchant class and the expansion of their commercial networks. The exposés feature photographs and brief biographies of the firm owners and senior personnel, pictures of their commercial houses, plantations and factories, and details about the firms’ origins. Reading across the album for connections between the firms and merchants provides insights into their rhizomatic mode of expansion (Cohen 1997), a preliminary mapping of the territorial extension of Cantonese Peruvian commercial networks and insights regarding their connections to other places of the world.
The most prominent of these merchants, including Aurelio Pow San Chia of Pow Lung & Co., Fon Shan King and Cesareo Chin Fuksan of Wing On Chong & Co., Santiago Escudero Whu of Pow On & Co., Pablo Chan Po Lim of Hop On Wing & Co., Tomas Yui Swayne of Wing Yui Chong & Co. and Wing Hing & Co., Jo San Jon of Cheng Hop & Co. and Javier Koo of Kong Fook & Co., all of whom operated the largest Chinese commercial firms in Peru, figured prominently in the “Lima” section of the album. These Lima-based firms had branches, subsidiary firms and personal commercial connections that extended throughout the northern coastal agricultural regions of Lima, Piura, Lambayeque and La Libertad, but also to the southern coastal region of Ica and to Junin. An interior borderland region straddling the Andean highlands and Amazonian rainforest, Junín became closely connected with Lima after Henry Meiggs completed construction of a railroad line to the mining town of La Oroya, facilitating the expansion of commerce, including Cantonese commercial firms, to this highland region. Most of the large Cantonese commercial firms in Peru also maintained strong commercial ties to Hong Kong. Some, like Hop On Wing & Co. (Colonia 1924, 47-50), were subsidiaries of Hong Kong firms, originally established when the Hong Kong parent firm dispatched a trusted employee to undertake a new commercial venture in Lima. These Lima-based firms, which continued to recruit personnel from Hong Kong, would in turn dispatched their own trusted employees to establish branch firms in other Peruvian towns.
The branch firms typically set up shop in towns where a large Chinese population already existed, the remnants of an earlier wave of coolie labor migrations (1849-1874), which brought nearly 100,000 indentured Chinese to labor on Peru’s northern coastal sugar and cotton plantations and to mine guano on the Chincha Islands off the Peruvian coast (Stewart 1951, Rodríguez Pastor 1989, Narvaez 2010). These firms nested into existing Chinese communities and the local commercial networks they had carved out, becoming the chief suppliers of imported Chinese and Japanese commodities, but also offering other foreign commodities (Lausent-Herrera 1983). Cantonese commercial firms in the provinces, like the parent firms in Lima, also took up the trade in general merchandise and groceries, incorporating the sale of Peruvian grains, cattle, pigs and vegetables distributed locally, to Lima and other urban centers. In this way, Cantonese firms became part of an expanding national market for the circulation of everyday commodities (Hu-DeHart 1989). Eventually, senior employees from these branch firms might break away, after having accumulated sufficient experience, reputation, capital and connections to establish their own commercial firms. Maintaining strong commercial relations with the large firms that had once employed them, these newly independent merchants frequently became extensions of the larger firms’ commercial networks.
The largest of these firms and merchants also expanded into plantation agriculture, producing sugar and cotton for export at a time when these mass commodities were in high demand in the industrial centers of Europe and the United States, but also in places like Shanghai with its growing textile industry. This expansion into export oriented agricultural production was a pivotal factor fueling the growth of Cantonese commercial networks throughout Peru and the consolidation of a Cantonese elite merchant class. With the rapid extension of Cantonese commercial networks across the northern coastal agricultural regions of Peru, an expansion that began at the end of the 19th century and intensified during the inter-war period, Cantonese merchant elites turned their attention to strengthening their commercial networks with other Chinese communities across the Pacific, and to building their own shipping infrastructure, as evidenced by the establishment of the short-lived Chungwha Navigation Co. Their commercial trajectories had come full circle.